14. Burnt by the Sun: Realisation
I watched this film on my 21st birthday in a classroom in my third year at University. I retreated after it was over to my bedroom, switched off the light and got into bed. I decided then and there I was never, ever getting out of bed again.
Burnt by the Sun is a film directed by and starring Nikita Mikhalkov set during The Great Purge. No, no, not that silly film where all the posh people wear masks and skip about but the period of time during Stalinist Russia where people were regularly being rounded up and killed as traitors without a trial. You couldn’t actually trust anyone cause they might be working for the secret soviet police (the NKVD) and people often abused their power to just make people they didn’t like disappear.
Now I suspect I know what you are thinking. And you are right. Take what I didn’t know about Nazi’s and treble it for what I don’t know/understand about Stalin and his crew. My God my ignorance about history would blow your actual mind. This review might be a bit beyond me…So take any of my ‘facts’ with a pinch of wikipedia flavoured salt.
Burnt by the Sun centres around a loud, kooky family who are deeply shaken when a familiar face from the past shows up. So far, so soap opera. But there is a little more going on in this film as is evident by the always present visage of Stalin watching over everything.
Sergei Petrovich Kotov is a Russian civil war hero, known and beloved by many and best buds with Stalin himself. He has a lovely young wife named Marusia (spellings may differ) and an even younger daughter named Nadya. He is a devoted family man, as evidenced by shots of him hanging around naked with his young Daughter in a steam room:
They are related in real life too. Does that help? Moving on…
He is the only one not delighted to see Mitya, the aforementioned familiar face from the past. Well that is not quite true. Maruisa is looking a bit shifty about it too. But Maruisa’s clan are delighted to see the talented and charismatic Mitya, played by the brilliant Oleg Menshikov, who went missing a decade or so earlier, and Nadya is soon referring to him as her Uncle. Really soon actually. The events of the film take place in one day. Kids really like random weird strangers who upset their Mum and make their Dad angry. Honest.
The awkward thing is Mitya used to be engaged to Maruisa before he disappeared. So her family doting over him is a bit, err, odd. So he shows up and as the tension bubbles between him and Kotov it is revealed that Kotov used his status to disappear Mitya so he could put the moves on Maruisa. Oh dear. So we are on Mitya’s side right? Well not exactly. Because the revenge he has in mind is somewhat unimaginative: He is now working for the NKVD, selling people out and assisting in the kidnapping and murder of many people and now he is getting Kotov arrested for a non existent conspiracy he is supposed to be plotting. Well fuck.
So Kotov disappeared Mitya so Mitya is going to disappear him. Kotov believes his status will protect him and tells Mitya he is a nasty whore for selling his loyalties out so freely instead of being a decent hard working communist like him. Rumours that Mitya responded by telling Kotov that this might be so, but his Dad could beat up Kotov’s Dad have never been confirmed.
All the while, the two men pretend to be friends for the sake of Nadya and the rest of the family even passing off physical fighting as a bit of homoerotic horseplay. Kotov agrees to go with him, confident his close relationship with Stalin will sort out the misunderstanding/lie, even letting Nadya ride in the car with the men who have come to arrest him, keeping the charade up the whole way. Before he goes, Kotov leads a group of lads presumably from the Young Irony club in the oath of loyalty to the Party and to Stalin.
I remember when it got to this bit in the film as Kotov began to say goodbye to his family and get in the car, I felt a bit sick. He was either being very brave or very deluded. I couldn’t decide which. After all he is a solider, a respected, decorated leader, and he exits dressed in full uniform, contrasting with Mitya’s white sporty get up. Perhaps he has simply decided to face his fate with dignity. But although Kotov’s head is held high he doesn’t seem to fear for his life. He attempts to drink and banter with his kidnappers, but with edge: reminding them and us who is buddy is.
However when a passing peasant recognises Kotov in the car and tries to engage him in conversation, it becomes clear these guys do not respect Kotov’s badges at all as they starts pummelling the shit out of him before murdering the peasant. Being an innocent in this film does not steer you well.
The scene in question was not readily available (although you CAN watch the whole film in Russian on youtube right now! Go on, I’ll wait) which is why I am doing more describing than usual. Kotov’s beating is horrible as it all takes place in the claustrophobic setting of the back of a car with three guys trying to wrangle him as he attempts to fight back. But the camera doesn’t zero in on it, focusing instead on the emotionless Mitya as he pursues the unlucky passer by. It takes the camera a really long time to show us the outcome of Kotov being restrained and we see it from Mitya’s point of the view as the two men lock eyes in the cramp little car. It is brutal and humiliating to watch Kotov begin to crumble as Mitya’s eyes and his current situation tells him what we have already worked out: There is no coming back from this. Stalin won’t save him because Stalin is the one who ordered his arrest.
Kotov begins to sob and it is a horrible, horrible moment. Less than an hour ago he had everything and now it has all been taken from him. Is the fact that he took the future Mitya was supposed to have with the love of his life reason enough to hate him? However you feel about Kotov it is hard to watch his pain in this moment as everything he knows comes crashing down on him and there is nothing he can do to prevent it.
Is the film done hurting us yet? Of course not! Mitya kills himself after watching the Rules of Attraction girl from my earlier post. Is it because the revenge was unsatisfying? Too satisfying? His goal now completed was his life as good as done? Did he not want to wait for karma to come back around as it did for Kotov? Was it shame for all the evil he has committed? Did he feel unworthy of the family that welcomed him back with open arms?
Then we cut to Nadya skipping through the fields singing like the delightful young baby she is and we get the following post script:
Comdiv Sergei Petrovich Kotov “confessed” to all charges and was shot in August 1936. Maruisa was arrested and died in the Gulag in 1940. Although arrested with her mother, Nadya lived to see all three sentences overturned during the Khrushchev thaw. Having inherited her mother’s musical gifts, Nadya Kotova works as a teacher in Kazakhstan. “This film is dedicated to all who were burnt by the sun of the Revolution.”
So yes. It was a true story. And that lovely little girl? Both her Parents died and she was taken to a concentration camp. Hers is one of many stories, a snapshot of living in communist Russia in the 1930’s. And me? I had just turned 21. I felt the weight, the power of the postscript on my chest and the sobs of Kotov ringing in my ears. The world still has places where people can’t speak freely, where your freedom can be compromised because you make an enemy at the wrong time, where families are torn apart by politics, war and hatred. Where nothing is fair and nobody wins.
And so I went to bed. I decided humanity was doomed and there was no point in celebrating my birthday, getting up again or even watching the sequel. Yes there is a sequel. It came out 2010. No I have not watched it.
Is it like Taken 2? I bet it is like Taken 2.
So there I was, lying in the dark, weeping for the world.
Moments later, as I was replaying Kotov’s tears for the 40th time that day, there was a knock at my door.
‘The party is ready’ my SO informed me gently. Our flat had a tradition of decorating the kitchen and hiding gifts around the room when it was someone’s birthday.
‘Don’t care’ I murmured. My pillow was wet from my angry, weary tears.
‘Well…we’re all here. And we want to celebrate your birthday’
‘Tough. The world is a horrible place. Did you know people got shot for no reason in Russia in the 30’s?’
‘Yes. Everyone knows that. Cake?’
‘NO! Didn’t you hear me? The world is corrupt and full of hate!’
‘I made you a nutella milkshake’
I got out of bed. After all, I wasn’t going to let Stalin win.
Tomorrow…Drugs are consumed and children die #13/12